Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Life of an Artist


Don't push me cause I'm close to the edge
I'm trying not to lose my head, ah huh-huh-huh
[2nd and 5th: ah huh-huh-huh]
[4th: say what?]
It's like a jungle sometimes it makes me wonder
How I keep from going under

Grandmaster Flash, The Message

I slept on the floor in the spare room, hung my garment bag on the door for privacy, using a bath towel for a bed. There were no curtains, my window facing all of the adjoining backyards. Looking into other people’s homes, a part-time peeping Tom, slowly absorbed me. Emile and Hamlet slept in the front room facing the street. It was doable for a while.

Emile started working for Benetton, they were opening stores all over the city and were hiring smart young creative people. He quickly became an assistant manager and was doing well, I have no recollection of what Hamlet did for employment, the only thing that I recall about Hamlet is that he was extremely annoying. Everyone suggested that I apply at Benetton, I did and was hired immediately, I had a job!

They paid well for the time, the job was not horrible and they treated their employees well. The dress code was fluid, I could wear makeshift punk outfits, or random thrift store clothes, it didn’t matter as long as I did my job. I was thriving, taking care of myself, not hustling and not on welfare. I was working with people my own age, people from all sorts of backgrounds, kids with their own stories of struggle and hopes for success.

Emile was working at a store location just a few blocks away, but we would not be working together thankfully. We were situated in Bloomingdale’s Country as it was called then. I made enough money to pay my share on the cheap rent-stabilized apartment, enough to go out occasionally and then cash left over that I began to save. My stay with Emile had a time limit and I was more than happy to be planning my relocation.

I went out with Jose, the queen from Puerto Rico, we worked together, it was not a date, a possible friendship. We went to Danceteria, it was a multi-floored venue, their new location, with different music genres playing on each floor, you could get in for five bucks with a discount pass and spend hours wandering through the still intimate club.

Jose and I began to dance, I went into my experimental dance moves, I think that it was the Tom Tom Club song that came on. Jose slowly backed away with a look of horror on his face disappearing into the crowd. Obviously he did not approve of my steps but I kept dancing. A circle formed around me and I continued well into the night waiting till I was nearly dehydrated to order the one drink that I could afford. Jose was chilly and standoffish till I finally confronted him at work, you were making a fool of yourself, he said, I was having fun, so what if I don’t dance like everyone else? We never went out again.

One of our co-workers was recording a music single, pop, catchy, upbeat, she would sing it for us, her voice was amazing and we all said that the tune was great, reminded me of the Beatles. Soon her song was playing everywhere and she left the store to go on tour. The assistant manager, Andrea, probably the oldest one, she was 28, grew very fond of me and patiently taught me how to fold the sweaters properly, we folded sweaters all days long at Benetton. She would also make sure that I was prepared for quick advancement. With new stores opening everyday and hiring taking place from within, it was easy to move ahead.    

The apartment was in shambles, the windows were from thirty years prior, drafty and painted shut, the heat was minimal, roaches and mice infested the place. The shower provided enough hot water for a quick rinse as long as the neighbors were not bathing at the same time, if they were you would bang on the pipes. Emile had found his home though and slowly began the process of making his mark, painting trim, pulling up shabby linoleum to reveal wonderful original wood floors laid in painstaking patterns and ridding the place of vermin.

The neighbors all moved in at the same time, The Columbian couple downstairs, he sold art supplies, the hysterical Black gay guy who worked in fashion, he had a part-time lover with whom he would frequently fight, one night his boyfriend beat the door down, Steve, also an artist lived up above us with his lover Howard and then the weird quiet guy that lived across from them.

There was a Laundromat downstairs, the owner never turned the heat up on the dryers, we’d have to put our clothes onto the radiators to finish drying, the bodega on the corner had fresh meat and deli, otherwise it was cheap beers, rotting vegetables, and stale bread. In between the bodega and us lived a drug dealer, his clients would stand out on the curb throughout the night screaming out his name. We were taking a risk by living in that neighborhood, Fort Greene was a ghetto then.

We discovered the Southern restaurants in the neighborhood, the best fried chicken, mac n cheese and peach cobbler in town. They were all take out places and cheap, but you had to get there between five and eight pm. The neighborhood people standing in line would look at me, some skinny gay interloper kid all alone, they’d mumble under their breath, then momma behind the counter would say, now if you all don’t shut up no one is getting anything! It was a scary place and a scary time, but that was not my problem, I knew that I would not be there forever, I wanted to live in the city.  

I came home from work one night, everything was fine, get into my room, flip on the bright overhead light fixture, take a deep breath and see that there is a guy sitting in his window across the courtyard. He is just watching me, watching my every move. I go into the kitchen, his eyes follow me through the rooms. Back in my bedroom I see that he has taken his shirt off, I take mine off, he makes some hand motion and begins taking his pants off, I already had a boner, it didn’t take much in those days.

He stood up, began to rub his torso, my heart pounding I take my pants off. I shut my lights, he did the same then turned his back on, I did as well, he was naked and jacking-off. I removed my underwear and began masturbating. I came very quickly, turned the lights out, put my clothes back on and then resumed the night. This would keep happening for a few weeks till one night the neighbor on the top floor of that building across the way opened his window, a big Black man with a baseball bat, he was pounding it on his sill, I was terrified, turned out the lights and hung my garment bag over the window.

Gay men were dying all over the city, that strange new virus with a name that kept changing, one that went unnoticed by the government, the disease where if you caught it hospitals would refuse to treat you, our population being plucked off one by one, the papers treating it like some gay only thing that had just been incubated in a New York City bathhouse. The conspiracies ran wild, but for the most part people thought that the gay population had brought in on themselves and deserved such a brutal fate. For a while we all believed that and believed that we would all get it.

The Brazilian dancer got a hold of me, he was back in town, asked me to join him and some of his friends at S.O.B.s. I went, there was a big party, he was very happy to see me, his friends thought that we were a good match. The dancer had some very experimental dance moves, even too much for me. We went back to the place where he was staying, this time is was not some cold-water flat with the tub in the kitchen but a gorgeous townhouse. We had it all to ourselves, went to bed, he fucked me for what seemed like hours, I never came with these big dick guys, they didn’t care. I caressed his muscle bound black body in the shadows as night fell.

In the morning I bathed, everything was so pristine and high-end, but even after shitting out the cum, showering and then toweling off, wiping my ass, I left shit stains on the expensive towel, I was too embarrassed to say anything. We sat at a glass-topped table eating breakfast in the nude. I had tried to clean the towel, finally I told him, it was too much for him to handle, these are very expensive towels! I will have to replace this and I have no money! I left and never saw him again.

At work one day I was asked to go pick up some inventory from another nearby store, this one was a high-end version, a fifth avenue store. I was dressed all in black, people asked if I was in mourning or into voodoo. But it was there that I met Richard. He was tall and handsome with a huge smile, I flirted, he flirted back. He was not out and everyone told me that he was straight. We went out on a couple of dates and then he invited me to his place in Queens, I went, and within minutes we were making out, I pushed him onto the sofa, shirts coming off, hands fumbling at pant zippers till they were opened and pants pushed down.

I was so ready for this big man to take me, in the heat of it I look down, suddenly he became very uncomfortable, I continued only to discover a very very small dick. The heat simmered quickly and his discomfort as obvious as a bad marching band in a parade. I left but still was interested, who cares, but the passion had faded. We went out one more time, it was around my birthday, riding home on the train together he gave me a present, an expensive bottle of Van Cleef and Arpels, the only cologne that I would wear. You deserve someone better, he says as he gets out of the subway at his connecting stop.

I met another guy soon, I don’t remember where, he invites me to the new club The Limelight, it was their Sunday dance, Sundays and Thursdays were always the gay nights at the clubs. Limelight was fantastic, I would end up spending a lot of time there. This guy was older, a little effeminate, not my type but I gave it a shot. We went to his place on the upper eastside before going out, as he was gyrating on the floor, thrusting his hips in the air, I noticed someone jacking off in a window across the street. Eventually I was on the window’s ledge. We went to the Limelight, my date wearing short shorts and a shorn t-shirt that read PUTA. Prince’s DMSR came on, this guy jumped up and began thrusting his hips on the dance floor, I left.

At the store where I worked, we got a new manager, Patti. She was 23, all long curly blond hair, a bright smile and the energy of a demon. I have always enjoyed working for women. Patti and I got along immediately. We wore identical outfits, skin-tight black cotton stirrup pants and sleeveless mock turtlenecks, we were going to be great friends forever. We would go to the Hard Rock Cafe, she would always use her charm to get past any velvet rope and then assure the hostess that we should be seated immediately, maybe passing them a folded five-dollar bill. One night we went to the new club on 14th street, The Palladium. Again just walking past everyone in line as the doorman let us right in. We were there for the opening of their art gallery, it was past another velvet rope, the show was Mapplethorpe’s flower photographs.

At work one day Fabiana came into our store, she was the gorgeous Italian district manager. I was working the register in one of my cut up New Wave outfits, helping people, happily folding, and smiling brightly. She and Patti stood there looking and talking about me. Patti told me later that they were considering me for an assistant manager position for the new store uptown on Madison Avenue and 74th street. I got the position and a raise!

My new manager was Maureen, she was from Riverdale, nothing like the Archie’s. She was overweight, pig-nosed, crude and not someone that I would want to hang out with. But we had to set up the store, the fixtures, shelves and lighting were put in then we two stocked the placed with unconstructed sweater dresses, the famous polo shirt, hundreds of other sweaters and skinny jeans. Our staff was designated, Michael and Claudia, the cute young Italian kids, Dragomir, the obscenely beautiful Russian kid of a diplomat, a demure young Black woman and Missy, she lived up the street. We were ready for the opening, but we had no idea what was about to happen.

Every kid of means in that neighborhood flooded into the store! In our first month we sold a hundred thousand dollars worth of merchandise, I don’t think that there was anything priced over two hundred dollars.

Jack was still around but I think that he was disappointed that I failed at hustling. We would go out to Uncle Charlie’s and then the Monster, get pizza, get stoned then go home. One night I needed to go out, alone. I went to Uncle Charlie’s, assumed my perch that overlooked the bar and fell into position. Skin-tight black jeans, my t-shirt with cut off sleeves. I just stood there, striking my pose, drinks sent my way, maybe a burning cigarette lit by a passing man that would then dangle from my lips.

The lights were dim and blurred, the boys that had tried and failed walked past me, the ugly old men I began ignoring. But there was one beam of light and it was shining down on these two guys, one just kept staring, he would look at me and then look away only to look again, I never looked away. That Eurythmics song came on, There Must Be an Angel. This guy rushes past me and goes up the stairs the to restroom, I waited in the narrow stairwell, there would be no way that he could avoid me on his way down, I waited. Here he comes, rushed with a shy smile he continues walking past, I put my foot out just enough to make him trip without falling, we’re you going to say hello?

He smiles says hi and then he hurries off. I assume my place and position, he is there in that light, I wait. He and his friend are putting their coats on, this guy walks over, here is my number, call me if you want, my name is Jason. With a glance over his shoulder he turns and leaves quickly, out the door and into the night.